DATE April 17, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Dave Davies discusses his experiences covering the
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
When you looked out the window of our Philadelphia radio studio yesterday,
what you saw was a long line of media trucks and a lot of security preparing
for the Clinton-Obama debate at the Constitution Center. It's directly across
the street from us. The campaign and media circus has been in town. We
invited Dave Davies to talk with us about covering the Pennsylvania primary
race for the Philadelphia Daily News and tell us what goes on behind the
scenes as the campaigns, staff and surrogates give their talking points and
You probably know Dave as a frequent guest host of FRESH AIR. He's also a
senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News and has covered local government
and politics for the past 20 years.
Hi, Dave. Well, you were across the street last night from the WHYY
Mr. DAVE DAVIES: Right.
GROSS: ...at the Constitution Center covering the debate, and you were
telling me before that your deadline was 10:15, which is 15 minutes after the
debate ended. So how do you file so quickly?
Mr. DAVIES: You do what sports writers do, which is that you write the story
as the event is happening. In this case I was working with a partner.
Catherine Lucey was back at the newspaper watching on television, and she and
I were both taking notes, and we would trade e-mails because I had wireless
Internet, and we would talk on the phone during the breaks and say, `you'll do
a section on this part, I'll do Social Security.' And I would feed it all in
to her and she would work with an editor to put the final version together.
But it's really, really intense. And it makes it hard to get the same
perspective you would have if you were just sitting back and kind of taking
the whole event in because you're really doing two things at once. You're
trying to focus on what the story is and you're writing the story as it
GROSS: Now, you were in not the main room that we were seeing, you were in a
reporters' room. So what was that room like?
Mr. DAVIES: Well, it's typical of big events like this. There's a media
filing center, which is row upon row of tables with power outlets so that
everyone can plug in their laptops, and then multiple audio boxes for the
broadcast folks. And it is a sea of reporters that are all sitting at their
laptops watching the debate on a big screen TV and intently trying to take
notes and file as they go. Some who have less pressing deadlines will get up
and wander around. There's coffee and pretzels and food and chatting. And
you see, you know, folks that you see on cable TV wandering around. So
there's a kind of a little bit of a big event, sort of festive air to it. But
mostly it's the great unwashed masses of journalism really under a lot of
pressure working hard to get the story. And, right, and they don't see what
people inside the debate room see. They really see what happens on
GROSS: Now, when do the spinners enter the picture?
Mr. DAVIES: There is a spin room. In this case it was downstairs and away
from the actual filing center. I've been in debates where it's adjacent to
the filing center and the spinners actually begin entering before the debate
is over because they know what kind of deadline pressure reporters face. And
this is a funny thing to see because what you have, the spinners are campaign
staff and elected officials, allies and surrogates of the two candidates. And
as they wander into the room they have an aide behind them holding a little
wooden sign over their head identifying them so that reporters will know who
they're talking to. And then there's this chaotic scene where these clusters
of reporters gather around these people who offer their spin and
interpretation of what happens.
GROSS: So you were expecting that the Pennsylvania primary was going to be
inconsequential because it comes so late in the campaign season. And as it
turns out, as we all know, it's crucial for the Democratic race. So describe
what the daily spin machine has been like for you as a Philadelphia reporter.
Mr. DAVIES: It's a variation on what I'm familiar with covering other races
that I've covered that are multimillion-dollar budget races, like races for
mayor or governor. I mean, when a reporter is covering one of those races,
when I've covered them, I'll talk frequently, almost every day, with people on
the campaign staff who have these long conversations, typically off the
record, at which they want you often to do negative stories about their
opponent. They're complaining about the treatment that you're giving them.
They're, you know, putting out the message of the day and trying to direct you
to some shady thing in the opponent's past. But that's typically all done off
the record, and they hope that you will do the work of tearing their opponent
down and spare them the risk of doing it publicly.
What's interesting about a national campaign is that because, instead of eight
or 10 reporters following the race intently, there are a couple of hundred.
The spinning is done in conference calls, at which the campaign operatives
will e-mail to reporters an 800 number and a pass code. And so hundreds of
reporters will call in at a designated hour and listen to the spin machine
from the campaign operatives. And because they can't strike an off-the-record
agreement with 200 reporters in a conference call, it's all on the record. So
it's an odd sort of variation on this.
And typically a lot of the conversation that goes on in these efforts to spin
reporters don't yield stories because they don't merit them. But in this
national context, because there are bloggers who need 24-hour material and
talk show hosts and cable TV hosts, and because it's on the record and is
available on the Internet, there's this sort of churning subcampaign in which
the campaign operatives are spreading venom and vitriol, which insiders and
reporters see and hear, which is really at odds with what's going on in the
campaign that voters see. I mean, the candidates are speaking in civil tones
and their ads convey positive messages. But the insiders sort of see this
nasty, sharp, divisive campaign that's sort of sub rosa.
Now, that changed about a week ago when Hillary Clinton began running negative
stuff, and the public campaign began to be negative as well.
GROSS: How do the two campaigns compare in how they've handled spin, and
particularly on how they've handled the negative spin that they're putting
Mr. DAVIES: You know it's interesting because when I had a chance to
interview Barack Obama, I wanted to ask him about this because it did seem to
me that his public commitment to transcend partisanship and run a positive
campaign to some extent was inconsistent with his own people constantly trying
to encourage negative stories about Hillary Clinton. And in preparation for
that interview I went back to look for examples of it, and it did seem to me
when I looked more carefully that the Clinton campaign was more frequently and
stridently engaged in that kind of negative spin.
Now, the Obama folks did it, and they certainly encouraged a lot of negative
stories. But when I heard their campaign manager, for example, and listened
more carefully, it seemed like his heart wasn't quite in it or maybe he knew
that he was in a campaign where they didn't really want to sound like that.
On the other hand, he wanted reporters to do the negative stories. So they
would tend to have surrogates make the more harsh attack, or in pitching a
negative story themselves, do it a little more cautiously.
GROSS: And what did Obama tell you when you asked him that question?
Mr. DAVIES: I began by citing some examples of where his own full-time
campaign staff had said really negative things about Hillary and had
encouraged reporters to write negative stories about Hillary Clinton. And as
soon as I began talking he began nodding his head up and down and he said,
`This is a tension at this point in the campaign.' And essentially what
happened was there came to be a point at which a Clinton campaign operative
said that `we're going to through the kitchen sink at Obama,' and they were
doing regular conference calls pitching the stuff. `And my staff and I
decided that'--this is Obama speaking--he said that his staff had concluded
they needed to get in the game, too, otherwise there would be no other message
getting out there.
Now, the `kitchen sink' quote that he referred to, I checked, that was in a
New York Times story. There was--they quoted an anonymous Clinton staffer at
saying that they were going to be throwing the kitchen sink at Obama. When I
followed up and asked, `well, did you personally approve this change in
strategy?' he shook his head no and said, `look, this is what happens in a
campaign. I knew national politics would be tough,' and it is tough.
GROSS: Now, you got an interview with Obama, how did you get it and what were
the ground rules?
Mr. DAVIES: It's interesting. The Obama campaign was very disciplined about
trying to grant one-on-one interviews to most of the local reporters covering
the campaign. And what they did was, they would tell you ahead of time, `he
is going to be at an event in your area'--in my case it was Wallingford, a
suburb--`and you'll get seven minutes. And you go to the event and you wait.
There's a period after the campaign, after the event, and then you're ushered
to a room where'--in this case I was one of three reporters that were given
They do this a lot particularly with television reporters because they know
that the TV stations love to promote the fact that their person was one-on-one
in a chair with Obama. And, in fact, the day that I did mine I noticed that
one of the local stations had had their opportunity the day before. And when
they presented it on television, you almost--it was as if their reporter had
spent the entire day with Obama. They had began by ordering room service,
practically. And so they know that there's a bit of hype to that, but it
increases the exposure for their candidate.
I write columns sometimes for the Daily News, and I think they'd that I would
write a column off this interview. I didn't because he didn't say anything
very new. He was very disciplined about it. But it was a seven minute
interview with a campaign aide literally holding a stopwatch to make sure that
we didn't go over the time.
GROSS: And did he say `your seven minutes are up'?
Mr. DAVIES: No, I was sort of aware of it, and I kind of looked at him, and
I said, `Do you have a couple of more minutes?' and so I finished. You know,
the honest truth is that I don't pursue a one-on-one interview with these guys
just to have it. I mean, I'm not a TV reporter that needs to be shown on
television sitting down with them. I want to talk to them if I feel there's
something that I can ask them that I haven't heard anybody ask. And in this
case, there were a couple of questions like that. I don't have any illusion
that if I sit down and ask them the same question that they have heard 500
times I'm going to get anything different. I ask a question when I think
there's something I actually want to know.
GROSS: What are the other questions you wanted to ask him?
Mr. DAVIES: The other one was--one of them was that I had noticed that when
he came to the Philadelphia area, all of his appearances, all of his public
events were in the suburbs, despite the fact that his true hard-core base of
support, his greatest base of support in the state were African-American
communities in Philadelphia. And I asked him whether, in a state with
Pennsylvania's demographics, candidly, do you prefer to have TV images with
adoring white people looking at you rather than, in the post-Jeremiah Wright
era, being seen with a crowd of very enthusiastic black supporters. And he
assured me, of course, that that was not the case, that what they were doing
was to go into areas where they are less well known and meet people, which is
actually, you know, a perfectly sound political strategy. But that was a
Then I also asked him about pledged delegates, because not long before our
interview Hillary Clinton had appeared at a meeting with reporters and our
editorial board and had expressed the idea that not just superdelegates, but
that even pledged delegates aren't committed to vote for anybody and can
change their minds. And so I wanted to ask him his reaction to that and
whether he--if she began trying to convince his pledged delegates, would he do
the same and try and persuade some of hers.
GROSS: And he said?
Mr. DAVIES: He skillfully deflected it all and said `we're focused right now
on getting Pennsylvania.' I mean, these guys are good at not making news.
GROSS: Did you talk to Hillary Clinton one on one?
Mr. DAVIES: Didn't. Didn't ask for it because I didn't kind of have things
that I really wanted to get at her. And I think when we met with her in our
editorial board meeting, we as reporters sat down--and I did actually ask her
some questions then and felt like we had a pretty good exchange. She sat with
us for quite a while and we asked some pretty tough questions. And so I
didn't feel a need to seek a one on one with her.
GROSS: Did any news come out of that editorial meeting?
Mr. DAVIES: Actually it did, and this was partly timing. She met with us
right about the time that the controversy over her landing in Bosnia had
really flowered into a big public issue. The CBS videotape, which clearly
contradicted her version of what happened, had gotten around. And one of our
reporters, Will Bunch, asked her directly, confronted her with the quotes that
she had given a week before, and she, for the first time, admitted, that she'd
gotten it wrong.
And that was one of those interesting kind of journalistic moments. Because I
think, as that story was kind of bubbling, you know, there's always a debate
about how important is it that she misrepresented this thing, how important is
it? And when we wrote the story, I don't think we made a big deal about it.
But when we put her answer on a blog post, it made news. It was played and
re-played on cable TV all night and was widely quoted which, of course--and so
the Daily News got credit for a little campaign scoop that day.
GROSS: My guest is Dave Davies. You probably recognize his voice as a
frequent guest host on FRESH AIR. He's covered Philadelphia politics and
government for about 20 years. He writes for the Philadelphia Daily News, and
he's been covering the Pennsylvania primary for the Philadelphia Daily News.
And we're talking about what it's like when the big primary carnival comes to
town and you're covering it.
How do you think the blogs and YouTube are affecting campaign coverage? Has
it affected how you cover the story?
Mr. DAVIES: Oh, absolutely. You know, as a reader, I always feel that if
I'm going to invest my time in reading something, I want it to be something
that someone has at least spent a day thinking about--I mean, researching the
facts, developing some context, giving it some insight. But nowadays,
reporters don't have that luxury. Even people who work for daily papers or
weekly publications have to file constantly online to keep up with everyone.
And then the bloggers are filing all the time. And newspaper reporters are
expected to run, to maintain blogs and contribute to blogs as well.
And it's interesting because, you know, years ago--there's a lot of downtime
at these big public campaign events because it takes a while for candidates to
get there--and years ago you would see reporters, while they're waiting for
the event to start, out talking to voters and talking to campaign operatives
and talking to each other. Now they're all buried in their laptops. They all
have wireless Internet, and they are searching the Net for material and filing
stuff. And it means that a lot of what campaign coverage becomes are these
little mini-nuggets of stuff, the sort of undigested material, and it, I
think, sometimes tends to exaggerate the importance of little flaps, and I
think it makes the community a little more insular.
The other side of it is that there's an enormous amount of information out
there. I mean, when folks are sitting at their laptops they also have access,
immediate access to all kinds of research and what other people are writing.
And I also think it does hold the media more accountable. I mean, there's
just no doubt that so many more eyes are on what we do that, you know, no one
voice dominates. And that's a good thing.
GROSS: Since you've been covering Philadelphia government and politics for
about 20 years, let me ask you some of the behind-the-scenes reasons that you
know of why Pennsylvania leaders have chosen to back who they've chosen to
back. For instance, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter is supporting Hillary
Clinton. Are there behind-the-scenes reasons that help explain his choice?
Mr. DAVIES: Well, he goes way back with the Clintons. When he was a city
councilman, he was a Clinton delegate to--I believe the 1992 convention, it
might have been '96. So he's known them from way back. In the '90s the
Clintons were very friendly to Philadelphia, friendly to its mayor, Ed
Rendell, who's now the governor, and they were in town a lot. So a lot of
Democrats in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia got to know the Clintons and
respect them and like them because, you know, they were helpful in all kinds
of ways, in regulatory ways, in funding ways. And so I think the relationship
really grew then. So I think there was already an intense personal
relationship and loyalty.
And then I think, you know, there was the point at which, early on, it looked
as if she would be the nominee. And if you want to get credit for supporting
somebody who everybody in the end is going to support, doing it early really
helps. And so I think it was sort of partly personal loyalty and personal
relationships and partly getting on the bandwagon before everybody else is on.
One more thing. Mike Nutter won a five-way race for the Democratic nomination
for mayor last year, and one of his chief competitors was Congressman Chaka
Fattah from Philadelphia. And Fattah had a relationship with Obama. Obama
came and hosted a fundraiser for Fattah's congressional committee. I don't
think he, per se, endorsed him, but there was a closeness there and I think
there was a sense--I mean, Fattah certainly spoke a lot about Obama and
endorsed Obama. So it might have been that, you know, Nutter, he was close to
Hillary Clinton, knew her well, saw Obama as, you know, kind of hanging around
with his chief mayoral rival. He has been asked about this and said it had
absolutely nothing to do with it. But it aligns the same way.
GROSS: Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell also endorsing Hillary Clinton.
Mr. DAVIES: Yeah, not just endorsing. I mean, he is just enthusiastically,
intensely partisan about this. He had a very good, close relationship with
Bill Clinton when Clinton was in the White House in the 1990s. Ed Rendell
took over the city in 1992 when it was completely bankrupt and discouraged.
And, you know, Clinton goes into the White House in '93 and they just really
clicked. I mean, they're people who are a lot alike. They're, you know,
lawyers of a certain age, both real policy wonks, both charismatic politicians
who are given to kind of explosive tempers but big hearts. And they just,
they had a great relationship. Clinton brought a lot to the city of
Philadelphia. He named it one of 10 empowerment zones, which brought a lot of
money for economic development to the city. Ed Rendell, who is a prodigious
political fundraiser, raised a ton of money for Bill Clinton and got others to
contribute. So that relationship all through the '90s I think practically
preordained that he would be with Hillary and he has been.
GROSS: Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey Jr. has endorsed Barack Obama. What
are some of the behind-the-scenes reasons for that endorsement?
Mr. DAVIES: That's the really interesting one. You know, Bob Casey is a
pro-life Democrat from Scranton in the eastern part of the state, and that
endorsement was particularly helpful to Obama because his base are the white,
working class, union-affiliated people that Obama tended to poll poorly in and
needed to increase his support in, so it was really very helpful. I think
Casey--well, what he said was that his four young daughters just loved Obama.
And that kind of opened him up to new voices of voters. It was also clear
Obama seemed to be marching toward the nomination. And again, if you help
somebody at the right time, good for your future.
And then there's--people with long memories will remember an old Clinton-Casey
grudge. Bob Casey's father was a governor in Pennsylvania, also named Bob
Casey, and in 1992 he was snubbed at the Democratic convention that nominated
Bill Clinton. He was, you know, not allowed to speak. His pro-life views
were very out of sync with the dominant, you know, sentiment in the Democratic
Party. And that really bothered the Casey family. And I think there's just
never been a warm relationship between the Caseys and the Clintons. I don't
think that's, per se, what motivated him to do it, but a lot of people noted
that, you know, they didn't like the way they were treated and now the
Clintons didn't like this.
GROSS: Dave, what are some of the differences between how the political game
is played when it comes to local politics vs. national politics, which is
what you're covering right now?
Mr. DAVIES: I think, wasn't it Tip O'Neill who said all politics is local?
The same principles apply, really. If you compare it to, say, Philadelphia
mayor's race, I mean, they're big budget campaigns. They have to raise a ton
of money. They have a media consultant who figures out what the message ought
to be and then makes radio and television ads, which are the most expensive
part of a campaign, and they try to get endorsements from other elected
officials and union leaders. So it really is kind of the same game.
The difference nationally is just, it is on such a scale that, in terms of the
media relations, you don't get quite the same intensive personal relationship
that you do in a local race. I mean, I have to say, one of the reasons that I
don't love covering politics is that when I cover a mayor or a governor's
race, I spend so much time on the phone being harangued by campaign operatives
and having my every journalistic judgment questioned.
GROSS: And do you spend a lot of time defending yourself or just listen and
then let it go?
Mr. DAVIES: No, you have to come back. And in a certain way it keeps you
sharp because you really do have to think through things. On the other hand,
there is a point at which you've just got to say, `you know, stop whining. I
call them like I see them. This is the way I saw that one.' And I don't mind
conceding a point. I mean, there are times when I'll say, `you know, you're
right. I could have done that a little differently. If I had to do it again,
I might.' Or a headline writer might have stuck something on the piece sort
of--that I wouldn't have particularly liked. But it's--in some respects,
what's so distasteful about it is that I feel that these are soulless
operatives who just will tell you anything. And a lot of what they sell
doesn't check out, and it's a tiresome process.
GROSS: One of the maybe silly things that candidates are forced to do when
they're campaigning in a city is do all the things that the city is known for.
You know, so in every city there's a certain food you have to eat, in
Philadelphia you have to have a cheesesteak. And there's certain, you know,
like diners or churches or synagogues that you have to go to. So how has that
played out in Philadelphia?
Mr. DAVIES: They really haven't done much of that stuff. Senator Obama did
do a walking tour of the Italian market, which is this wonderful kind of old
open-air market, but then he bought like a really expensive ham, and so people
made a big deal out of him having high, you know, refined tastes. But they
haven't--I don't think either candidate's eaten the cheesesteak, haven't
really done the diner tour. They will certainly do black churches on the
Sunday before the election. But they really kind of haven't embraced the
cultural artifacts the way these folks sometimes do.
Maybe because there's risks in it. When John Kerry was at one of the
cheesesteak places--and in fact, I had a personal connection to this story.
He went up to Pat's Steaks, which everyone in Philadelphia knows. It's sort
of one of the legendary cheese steak places, he went in and ordered a
sandwich, and I went in and asked the clerk, `well, what did he order?' And
the clerk said,`well, he ordered Swiss cheese on his cheesesteak,' which was
just ridiculous for anybody in Philadelphia. And I was going to save that for
a little gossip piece a few days later, but another reporter overheard me. It
ended up becoming a national story. And it kind of fed this notion that Kerry
was elitist and out of touch. It's sort of one of those ways in which
engaging in this sort of silly stuff can blow up.
GROSS: You know, were you sorry that you asked? Because they made such a big
deal of the fact that he ordered Swiss cheese when usually--actually what you
usually get is Cheez Whiz?
Mr. DAVIES: Yeah, you get Cheez Whiz.
Mr. DAVIES: No, I wasn't sorry because it was fun. I mean, you know, and
poking a little fun at him is fine. I was just sorry that I didn't put it in
the paper the next day. That's a lesson that I learned.
GROSS: Well, the circus will soon be leaving town, because the primary is
Tuesday. Are you looking forward to the end of the Pennsylvania primary?
Mr. DAVIES: I am, I mean, partly because it's so intense and exhausting.
These big events are huge sort of tiresome time-wasting affairs. But much
more because, you know, when I'm working on local reporting, I get the
satisfaction of having an impact. It's very different covering a story in
which you're one of two people on it than when you're one of 200 people on it.
I did some stories recently about the slow response of the city's 911
ambulance system. There was a horrendous case of a woman who died after not
getting a ride for nearly two hours. And that, and some other stories, led to
a policy response and some additional funding for the city's 911 system.
That's a lot more satisfying than chasing these blogs around and kind of
following this national story in which it's really, really hard to do any
And, you know, the other thing I have to say is that one of the things that
worries me about the state of journalism and the decline of newspapers is the
threat to local investigative reporting. There will always be people to write
about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. But if the economic base of
newspapers continues to decline, who's going look at the payroll of the local
school board or the sleazy contracts that are being handed out, you know, by
local officials. I mean, this is a city with a lot of problems. This city
spends $3 billion a year, and somebody really needs to keep an eye on that.
And I'm happy to be doing it.
GROSS: Well, Dave, thank you for describing to us some of the things you've
been covering and experiencing during the Pennsylvania primary as you cover it
for the Philadelphia Daily News. And thanks, of course, to frequently guest
hosting FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to talk with you today.
Mr. DAVIES: Fun to be in the same show.
GROSS: Dave Davies is a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and a
FRESH AIR guest host and contributor.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Lincoln Chaffee, former Rhode Island senator, on his
new book, "Against the Tide"
TERRY GROSS, host:
There were 23 senators who voted against authorizing President Bush to take us
to war in Iraq. My guest Lincoln Chaffee was the only Republican. He also
voted against the president's tax cuts. Two examples of how this senator from
Rhode Island was at odds with the Bush White House and got the reputation of
being the most liberal Republican senator of the Bush years. He was also a
member of the so-called gang of 14, seven Democrats and seven Republicans who
reached a compromise on how to deal with filibusters of President Bush's
Now Chaffee has written a memoir called "Against the Tide: How a Compliant
Congress Empowered a Reckless President." Chaffee was the mayor of Warwick and
planning a run for the Senate to take over the seat of his retiring father
John Chaffee. When John Chaffee died in 1999, the governor appointed Lincoln
Chaffee to take over his father's position. He won the election in 2000. In
2006 he lost to his Democratic opponent, Sheldon Whitehouse. Chaffee is now
teaching at Brown University.
Lincoln Chaffee, welcome to FRESH AIR. In your book you write that, "In the
decades before 1994"--this is before the Republicans swept Congress before the
so-called Republican revolution--"there were two dozen moderate Republicans
senators who would meet for lunch in the Capitol every Wednesday to build
camaraderie and talk about how they would work together in the week to come."
But you say by the time you got to the Senate in 1999, only five Republicans
were willing to be seen at the moderates table. Why was that?
Mr. LINCOLN CHAFFEE: Yes. Originally my father, who had preceded me in the
Senate, was part of the much larger moderate Republican group stretching
across the company. Nancy Kassebaum from Kansas, for instance, and Alan
Simpson from Wyoming. And by the time I got there it had shrunk to the five.
Two Maine senators, Snowe and Collins; Jeffords was still, Republican from
Vermont; Arlen Specter from Pennsylvania; and myself. And as the South turned
from conservative Democrats to conservative Republicans, the agenda of the
Republican Party switched to conservative--dictated from these Southern
senators. And I saw in my lifetime, a solid Democratic South slowly, year by
year, turn to almost solidly Republican--very, very conservative just as they
were as Democrats, but now they're Republicans. And they set the agenda for
the Republican Party.
GROSS: You write in your book that nothing in Congress could pass without
moderate support, if the moderates stuck together. But, you say, the
administration had a plan for making sure the moderates did not stick
together. What is the plan that you're referring to?
Mr. CHAFFEE: Well, that's my theory, that the tax cut was very premeditated,
that tax cut of the spring of '01, a $1.6 trillion tax cut. And to put it in
perspective, President Clinton had vetoed in October--so just several months
earlier--a $400 billion tax cut. And Clinton in his veto message said it's
irresponsible, it jeopardizes surplus. This is 400 billion. And now here we
were debating $1.6 trillion tax cuts. And my theory is that every politician,
of course, likes to vote to cut taxes. There's nothing more popular that
cutting taxes if you're a politician. And so the administration was serving
up this almost irresistible temptation in order to get Congress on their side.
And I saw my fellow moderates peel away, one by one, support this $1.6
trillion tax cut. I was left alone in opposition. And that broke our
moderate coalition right off the bat. It was very premeditated, in my view.
GROSS: So you think that one of the purposes of proposing the tax cut early
on in the Bush administration was to break the moderates as a unified group?
Mr. CHAFFEE: Yes, and also to, as I say, neuter Congress, show that the
executive branch is going to run the show. And the first order of business
is--the most popular thing you can do is tax cuts. And one by one they rolled
over. The chairman of Finance Committee, Senator Grassley from Iowa,
initially said he opposed it. He fell in line. And so it worked to
perfection, as we now know.
GROSS: You write in your book about your first meeting with Vice President
Cheney, and this was right after the election, and he met with you and the
other four members of the moderate Republicans who met weekly with each other.
Tell us what that meeting was like.
Mr. CHAFFEE: Yes. This was the day after the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in
favor of Bush-Cheney after the long recount of Florida, December of 2000. And
Senator Specter had invited him to join us. And when I read the news that the
Supreme Court had ruled that night I thought, oh, he'll have better things to
do that meet with us. But he kept the appointment and we met in Senator
Specter's Capitol office, and it was just the six of us, the vice president
and the five moderate senators. And I was shocked that--you know, there's a
cliche, you almost fell off your chair--I almost fell off my chair at that
lunch as he outlined this divisive agenda. And it's big tax cuts, its getting
out of international agreements. And to me, `this is contrary to what you ran
on' is what I'm thinking. He said `I'm a uniter, not a divider, and now
you're going to enact this divisive agenda?'
Governor Bush, the candidate, had said, when Jim Lehrer in the debates asked
him `what kind of foreign policy you going to have?' Fair question to ask the
candidate for president of the United States. And the candidate, Governor
Bush, had said `we're going to have a humble foreign policy. If they're
arrogant they'll resent it.' And at the time I was cheering that, saying
`that's the kind of candidate I want.' And here at this lunch with the vice
president, just hours after the Supreme Court has ruled, he's saying the
opposite. `We're going to have an arrogant foreign policy. We're going to be
And two things struck me. Number one, how quickly they were going back on
their campaign pledges. And secondly, how can the vice president have the
confidence--the vice president--to outline this agenda just hours after the
Supreme Court has ruled? To me that said that the vice president's going to
be a very, very powerful figure in this administration. He's speaking just
these hours after the Supreme Court has ruled about this very, very different
agenda from what was part of the campaign rhetoric.
And at that lunch I saw my fellow moderates not pushing back on this agenda.
And that gave me a sinking feeling, that we wouldn't have this key five-block
vote, which would be so fun to exercise the power. I mean, it was so rare and
fortuitous, if you will, that it's a 50/50 Senate. We have the power, these
five moderate senators. And I saw at that lunch us not exercising that
cohesiveness we needed to at that lunch.
GROSS: What did you say? Did you do anything to exercise your power?
Mr. CHAFFEE: I was the junior member, and we go by seniority. That's the
way the Senate works, even at an informal lunch. So I, when my turn came, if
you will, I was saying, `you're going to need our votes.' And the vice
president just didn't seem to--he said, `we'll get the votes.' `Every vote's
important,' if I recall, was his comment. And in other words, `I'm not going
to kowtow to this group.' That was the message.
GROSS: How much direct contact did you have with President Bush?
Mr. CHAFFEE: Well, right after the tax cut, I did vote against it. And I
expected to be the only Republican to vote against the tax cut. As it turned
out, John McCain surprised everybody by voting against the tax cut in the
spring of '01. And I felt, `well, I'm going to disagree with my party, my
president here. This is unfortunate we're getting off to a bad start. Let me
meet with him one on one.' And the White House accepted that and I went down
to the Oval Office. And I came out of that meeting more rattled than I went
It's just the two of us, President Bush and myself, and I came kind of to say,
`I know there's going to be issues we disagree with, but where can we find
common ground?' And I said here, `this agenda is going to jeopardize
Republican seats in the '02 elections, which are coming up. We just got wiped
out in 2000, went from a good majority to a 50/50 Senate in '02.' And he just
didn't want to talk about it. He said, `don't you worry about what we're
going to do.' And I came out of that meeting very rattled and concerned about
the leadership of the country at that time, which served me well when they
started talking about Saddam Hussein being a threat and other things. I was
on my guard, and it served me well.
GROSS: You know, in writing about your meeting with President Bush, you
describe how you brought up the issue of abortion and you brought the name of
Laura Bush into the discussion. Tell us what you said.
Mr. CHAFFEE: Well, it, as a case in point that they're going back on the
campaign promises, if you're a uniter not a divider, I mean, over and over
again I can remember that phrase in the campaign. The president's first act
after he was sworn in, his inauguration, the very first act was abortion,
taking on an abortion. And however you might feel about it, there's no
denying it's a divisive and a highly emotional issue. And so if you're going
to be a uniter, it's the last issue you'd want to take on, not the first. And
so at the meeting the two of us in the Oval Office, I said, `why are we
getting into this abortion issue? It's so divisive. People feel so strongly
about it. It's a very, very emotional.' And I said, `even Laura, your wife is
pro-choice.' And he snapped at me, `you keep my wife out of this,' he said. I
remember it. And that ended that conversation. Onto the next.
GROSS: Is Laura Bush pro-choice?
Mr. CHAFFEE: Yes. I'd seen in an article somewhere, and as I sat there at
the meeting I was scratching my head to think, am I accurate on that? Do I
recall that article accurately? And I did go back afterwards and find it, and
she had said something to that effect. And he didn't deny it. He didn't say,
`no, she isn't.' He said, `you leave my wife out of this.'
GROSS: One of the important votes that you write about in your book is the
vote in Congress authorizing the president to take us to war. And you're
still angry about how that was handled in Congress. You're angry that it was
rushed through. Tell us, from your perspective in the Senate at the time, how
it was rushed through.
Mr. CHAFFEE: Well, angry's just one of my feelings. As we look at 4,000
dead and we're arguing whether it's two trillion or three trillion dollars or
four trillion in the cost, and worst of all--if there is something worst of
all in this whole debacle--is there's no good way out. There's just no good
way out now. And so angry is just one of the ways I feel. And the big issue
is that we didn't have a true discussion about what the administration really
wanted to do there. They were dialing up the fear, and that certainly sold
well after September 11th. `Saddam Hussein's a threat, he has weapons of mass
destruction.' That was the mood at the time. And so the vote was taking place
in October of 2002, which is--the midterm elections are just weeks away in
November. And so it was all caught up in the politics at the same time.
And after Jeffords had switched across the aisles, the Democrats had the
majority, and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Senator Levin from
Michigan--chairman of the Armed Services Committee, the most important
committee, I would think, on this issue--urged us to slow it down. And he had
an amendment just hours before the war authorization just to slow it down.
And that was defeated by almost the same vote as the war resolution was
approved. It was a terrible performance by Congress.
GROSS: You write that you think Republicans and Democrats remain entrenched
at the political extremes.
Mr. CHAFFEE: Yes.
GROSS: Examples of that?
Mr. CHAFFEE: Well, after the 2006 elections, in which I lost, DeWine from
Ohio lost, Santorum from Pennsylvania lost, Burns from Montana lost, Talent
from Missouri lost, Allen from Virginia, I think I have them all. Six of us
lost. All incumbents. And, as we know, incumbents have a huge advantage.
The first thing we did after that wipe out, we meet to elect our leadership,
and Lamar Alexander was running for the whip position. He's not a liberal by
any means, but a different voice in our leadership in the Republican Senate.
And he was defeated by one vote by Senator Lott, who was making a comeback.
And I said to him, we're not changing. We're not changing. Let's have one
different voice in our leadership of our Senate. There's four or five members
of our leadership which we vote for, and that said we're not changing. We're
stuck in our partisan trenches.
GROSS: How do you think the Democrats remain entrenched in a political
Mr. CHAFFEE: Well, they've been more ineffective in standing up to this
radical agenda. And that's my criticism. Even in the--last September there
was a vote to declare the Iranian guards as a terrorist organization. Again,
to me, just giving the Bush-Cheney administration tickets to commence
hostilities against Iran. And that was a huge vote, 70 to 25 or something.
The Democrats just can't stand up to this administration. That's what I've
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lincoln Chaffee, the former
Republican senator from Rhode Island, and he served from 1999 to 2006. He was
considered the most liberal Republican in the Senate during his tenure. He's
written a new memoir called "Against the Tide: How a Compliant Congress
Empowered a Reckless President."
In your book, you refer to when the black congressional caucus just after the
contested election of 2000 asked for a senator, any senator to object to the
way the results were handled. And no senator was willing to do it. It seems
like you're sorry that you didn't do it yourself. Is that right? Like, if
you had it to do over again, you would have stood up and contested the
Mr. CHAFFEE: Oh, that was very, very memorable. And since most elections
don't involve such razor-thin margins and 5-4 Supreme Court decisions, this
was very unique. And as we learned about this arcane electoral college
process, one of these constitutional provisions is that one member of the
Congress can stand up and ask a senator to object, and that sets in motion a
chain of events. Not necessarily changing the election, but at least it sets
in motion some chains of events. And the members of the black caucus--we were
meeting in the House of Representatives as Vice President Gore counted the
electoral ballots, which would lead to his loss--and members of the black
caucus were standing up and saying, begging any senator, Republican or
Democrat, to object. And I think all of us thought that we've put this behind
us, we're going to move. We've got a uniter, not a divider. We've got a
humble foreign policy. The candidates had pledged to regulate carbon dioxide
so they'll have an environmental program. If we had known that they were
going to go back on all these pledges and how radical they'd be, certainly I
would have raised my hand and set in motion that chain of constitutional
GROSS: Do you feel like Gore set a tone that he didn't want anybody to
Mr. CHAFFEE: Yes. Yes, he had conceded, and he did set that tone. You're
absolutely right. As I sat there, he was willing to move on.
GROSS: The last time we spoke a couple of years ago you said that you lost
your seat to a Democrat in the Senate, but you were glad that the Democrats
had the majority now in the Senate. Do you still stand by that, and how
effectively, from your point of view, do you think they use their majority?
Mr. CHAFFEE: Yes, I do think it was important that there be the proper
questions asked. Have I been disappointed that more of these proper questions
haven't been asked of the executive branch? Yes, but at least it hasn't been
a complete--all the committee chairs being of the same party and no questions
being asked. That has changed. And I think that's good for democracy and
good for America at this time in our history. After this administration,
which no one can deny has been very, very radical in their agenda.
GROSS: Am I right in saying that when you were running for re-election in
2006, when you were defeated, that John McCain supported you?
Mr. CHAFFEE: Yes. I was in very much a no-win position of making the
decision to look after Rhode Island, my state, and knowing there were some
very, very important bills coming up as I contemplated running in 2006. I
knew exactly what I was in for. This was the--the Rhode Islanders would be
mad that the Republican agenda. They're not going to be happy with President
Bush. And he and Cheney were not going to be on the ballot; I would in 2006.
And so I decided--I made the decision to run as a Republican and look after my
state as best I could. And as such, I had to attract those Republicans, which
I shared some points of view, and certainly in Senator McCain and the
environment and the gang of 14, I had some commonalties.
GROSS: So after John McCain supported you in 2006 for your re-election, is it
awkward for you now to not be supporting him?
Mr. CHAFFEE: Yes. But that's part of politics, and once I lost the election
in 2006, it gave me some freedom to think about my future. And the war is the
big issue. I mean, he and I agree on environmental issues, and he was the
leader in the gang of 14, but the war trumps everything else. And he's still
insisting that that was a good move. And as I said earlier, it's the cost, in
so many ways, and the lack of options. It was a terrible decision.
GROSS: You lost your election in 2006, and you've been teaching at Brown
University. People say--I don't know it you've made it official, but that
you're considering a run for governor of Rhode Island in 2010. But you're an
independent now. You know, a lot of people thought you'd switch to Democrat
because you'd been so isolated as a Republican and so liberal compared to the
rest of your party. How come you decided to leave your party and become an
Mr. CHAFFEE: I guess lines of liberalism and conservatism cross somewhere.
And you've said several times over the course of the interview, the most
liberal Republican--which I'm proud to be called, but on some of the issues,
fiscal issues, I consider that conservative to protect our surpluses. And I
do consider it conservative to look after our environment. I think that's
long-range conservative thinking to make sure we have clean air and clean
water, and not getting involved in these foreign entanglements to me. And Pat
Buchanan would agree with me. Now, that's conservative.
And when I decided to leave the Republican Party, particularly after that vote
I talked about where my Senate leadership wasn't going to change after losing
those six incumbents, me included. And it took me about six months to think
about it, and here in Rhode Island we call it "unaffiliated." So I'm an
unaffiliated voter. And assessing the future, it gives me a chance, but I did
want to not be a Republican anymore when I saw the fact that they weren't
GROSS: Lincoln Chaffee, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. CHAFFEE: Thank you for inviting me on your great show.
GROSS: Lincoln Chaffee is a former Republican senator from Rhode Island.
He's currently a visiting fellow at Brown University. His memoir is called
"Against the Tide."
I'm Terry Gross.
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